Say It Ain't Joe

That's why Tony Ortega won't be getting much face time with Sheriff Joe.
The sheriff and his valet recognize that Ortega asks the kinds of questions that require the sheriff to be informed about the goings-on in his office. He asks questions that require Arpaio to knit his brow and inventory the wild claims and boasts made to pandering journalists and polyester service clubs far and wide. They know Arpaio is no match for anyone who has made even a cursory inspection of his record.

They also know that when Arpaio wings it, he cannot suppress the urge to blather unceasingly, inaccurately, contradictorily and with low regard for the language. Beavis has better syntax.

So the sheriff cowers and hides. His staffers refuse to tell us when and where he is taking his side show, because they know it would expose the sheriff to questions that beg probity.

They will conceal the sheriff's cluttered schedule of public appearances, citing "security problems" -- as though New Timesis poised to issue the coded signal that unleashes a mechanized team of Tent City commandos armed with petrified (or putrefied) breakfast pastries.

Given the proceedings unfolding at the federal courthouse, you may scoff at the notion that among Arizona's pantheon of pathetic politicians, none is more ill-suited than Sheriff Joe for a scrape with veracity.

Which can only mean one thing.
Joe Arpaio will be our next governor.
Make no mistake, Joe Arpaio will be on the 1998 ballot as a candidate for governor. He has far surpassed even his own dreams of creating an image of a courageous and noble protector. That image makes him arguably Arizona's most popular politician -- ever.

The prospect of Governor Arpaio makes the journalistic spirit in me soar. The scandal will be served up raw, bloody, copiously. (A decade ago, I was an editor on the Phoenix Gazette's city desk. Arizona was in the throes of Evan Mecham; I got calls from Arpaio, a retired federal drug agent. Even then, a loony without portfolio, Arpaio had an insatiable media jones. Receptionists were instructed not to forward his calls.)

At the same time, the thought of an Arpaio administration contorts my spirits of parenthood and citizenship. Can you imagine the man that brought us Tent City, green baloney, chain gangs and pooch cams overseeing the education and health care of millions of people?

Alas, 85 percent of the public adore him, which goes a long way toward explaining how we also got the likes of Evan Mecham, J. Fife Symington III, Don Aldridge, Jeff Groscost and J.D. Hayworth.

Arpaio won't resist the call.
His handlers already are working to remake his image, because what sells for a sheriff does not necessarily sell for a governor. He's won acclaim--and the devotion of thousands of people who are moving their lips as they read this--by exploiting his deputies, his volunteer posse and the jail inmates under his charge.

As each new plague is heaped upon the inmates--70 percent of whom are awaiting trial--these human beings deflate a little more while Sheriff Joe inflates proportionately. He is a blimp.

But Governor Joe could never be so medieval. That's why he's hopping aboard popular bandwagons like the assault on underage smoking. He's conducted stings to catch merchants who sell to minors. Attacking Big Tobacco has worked for Bill Clinton, it's worked for Grant Woods, why can't it work for Joe?

There also have been such touchy-feely initiatives as putting 150 law-abiding schoolkids in Tent City for a night--an exercise which served no rational purpose beyond getting the sheriff on TV, which, of course, it did. There's the sheriff's recent pledge to work harder on educational programs for inmates.

But this will be a tough makeover. As I strain to conjure the image of Joe Arpaio, Humanist, I see a perpetual video loop of Al Gore dancing, Larry Flynt being baptized, Boris Yeltsin dancing, that Japanese guy in Fargo.

Arpaio has reasons beyond ambition to bridle his rhetoric. Maricopa County taxpayers face many millions of dollars in liability from claims lodged by inmates injured in his jails, and many millions more from the kin of people who have died under his watch.

Arpaio knows his grandiloquence nurtured the yeasty environment that produced these deeds. He would prefer that everyone forget that article he wrote for LEPA, a law enforcement journal, in 1995. In it, he proclaimed, "I believe jail should be punishment, and I have acted on this belief since I took office."

That is the stuff of punitive damages, and until he's elected governor, Arpaio will contort to disavow such brimstone.

Which pedestal would Arpaio occupy in our gallery of guvs? Let's consider our recent inductees:

Evan Mecham was a bitter, confused, paleolithic man who couldn't grasp why people were upset about his condoning the word "pickaninny." Like Arpaio, Mecham once declared a journalist persona non grata. He also fed reporters that immortal line, "We'll answer questions. But we'll choose the questions." He was impeached because he was an ass.

Rose Mofford succeeded Mecham from her secretary of state post. Although her Dairy Queen bouffant was unruffled, she was never the same after she took a tumble and hit her head. Great for ribbon-cuttings and photo ops, but the details of state were another matter.

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